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When You Want to Travel Solo, But Not Alone

Well, hello there. Contrary to what you may have thought, I’m still here lurking about. So much has happened since we last spoke. I’ve felt a bit like a bride who has neglected to send out her thank-you notes for a year and feels guilty while trying to ignore it, thinking it’s too late and maybe people will have forgotten. They haven’t and they’re talking behind your back. Even if it’s your tenth anniversary, send the damn note.
As for me, I’m not hiding, but I won’t even attempt to catch you up on all that’s happened because, well, that would be boring. Let’s start with now, as there are some exciting things happening which you might actually find interesting.
CafeCurrent position: sitting in a coffee shop (or is it a café, I really don’t know what the difference is) in Budapest. Yup, back to my favorite city, which you helped me to discover (if you’re new here, read this). I’ve rented the same apartment which I rented for a month last year, only this year I’m staying for two months. I’ve also applied for a one-year Hungarian Resident visa in order to stay and write some more about the country because, quick, name a city in Hungary which isn’t Budapest? Unless you’re Hungarian, I bet you can’t. Why is that? There are wine regions, historical cities, lavender farms, and the picturesque Lake Balaton region. If I snag the visa, you may read about this in some travel magazines or websites.
But here’s the big news (talk about burying the lede) – I’m opening a tour company. Not a million-dollar money-making machine. These tours will be offered for two reasons: my love of sharing travel with people and helping them realize the empowerment in getting out of their comfort zone, and my need to actually make a buck to support myself, as writing, even for other people, pays crap.
So, welcome to Drop Me Anywhere Tours for Women! What? Women? Gentlemen, it’s not that you’re not invited but, well, yeh it is. I love you guys; in fact, I’ve loved more than one of you guys (not at the same time). But solo female travel is growing in popularity each year and, as I’m sort of an expert on this, who better to introduce other women to it? Women have often been held down (literally and figuratively) by men, and even by other women. No more. Also, I‘ve found an abundance of “How to Stay Safe When Traveling Solo” articles targeted at women, often implying that the minute you step out of your neighborhood alone you have a target on your back (or other body part). Why is Budapest more dangerous than my home city of Detroit? Why is Medellin more dangerous than Chicago? They’re not. Finally, any married woman who has traveled solo has been asked, “Your husband allows you to travel without him?” Aw, isn’t that precious.
Still, traveling with others can give one a sense of security, as well as a sense of fraternity, or maybe sorority? Ok, it’s just fun to share some experiences. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to go somewhere but your husband, boyfriend, girlfriends, whoever, either doesn’t want to go, can’t go, or simply has commitment issues. (If it’s your husband you may have a problem there.) Drop Me Anywhere’s motto is, When you want to travel solo, but not alone. And, as I’ve been a tour guide for 20 years and have traveled to 64 countries, maybe you think about coming with me as I’ll be guiding at least the first trips. And you also get to travel with a travel writer.
Speaking of those trips, the first two will be in the US as it’s a market I know well and easier for me as a start-up company. Let me tell you about the Wine Region trip which will include:

  • Four nights in Sonoma (hotel TBD)
  • Two nights in Calistoga at the incredible Indian Springs Resort (can you say mineral pools and mud baths?).
    Hotel
    Grounds of Indian Springs Resort, Calistoga

A big part of this company will be to support female-owned business so we will use those as local suppliers whenever possible. These will be some of the included activities:
Wine

  • In Sonoma, we’ll tour some wineries with one of the first female winemakers in the region. We may even do a bike ride through some of the vineyards (still working on that part).
  • We’ll spend a day at nearby Tomales Bay and Point Reyes Station where we’ll learn about different kinds of wheat, processing, and breadmaking from Celine Underwood, the owner Brickmaiden Breads, whose employees are nearly all women.
  • Across the street, we’ll participate in a cheesemaking demonstration at Cowgirl Creamery.
    Kayak
    Kayak on Tomales Bay
  • Then, we’ll hop in kayaks for our self-propelled, tour of Tomales Bay guided by Point Reyes Outdoors, owned by Laurie Manarik.
  • Perhaps we’ll shuck our own oysters which we’ll pick up from Hog Island Oyster Company for lunch or dinner, accompanied by our yummy bread, cheese, and wine (of course).
  • We’ll visit Jack London State Park where we’ll learn about Oyster MenuJack’s bold wife, Charmian, who hated riding girly side-saddle so she cut her skirts down the middle and sewed the pieces together to create legs so she could gallop like the men.
  • A highlight of this trip will be an evening with actress and playwright, Terry Baum, who will provide a talk about two ballsy women, Nellie Bly and either Ida B Wells or Lorena Hickok. Terry performs as these characters in order to give the audience a deeper understanding of their personal and professional struggles and triumphs.
  • Of course, we’ll have free time in downtown Sonoma and, hopefully, enjoy the Tuesday Night Farmer’s Market with music, dancing, and wine.Trees
  • Also, downtown, we’ll have a class at Abbot’s Passage, a small shop owned by winemaker Katie Bundschu, where we’ll learn how to make perfume, living jewelry, or some other creative endeavor.
  • On our way to Calistoga, we’ll do some forest bathing (look it up) with a hike in the Redwoods.

 
The other trip I’ll be offering involves one of my passions; western US National Parks. I’ve led countless tours to this region and am still excited each time I go. While this is at the beginning of the planning stage, my goal is to offer it in October, as I was there last fall and the beauty of the fall colors set against red rocks, majestic mountains, and commanding cliffs was beyond spectacular. We’ll hike (there will be options for all levels), swim, meet cowboys and Native Americans, enjoy a boat on Lake Powell, and maybe horseback ride. Plans are to visit:

  • The Grand Canyon National Park (not only a national park but one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World)
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (which is not technically a canyon, but I’ll explain that as we enjoy the beautiful hoodoos. I’ll explain those too)Mountain
  • Zion National Park (oh, my favorite!)
  • Arches National Park
  • Deadhorse State Park (no better place for a picnic)Hike
  • Lake Powell National Recreation Area
  • Monument Valley Tribal Park (an unforgettable place which will reach deep into your soul)

If either of these trips sounds interesting, click on the contact page and let me know your thoughts. Perhaps you already have a group of women who would like to go. While I will take no more than 20 people at one time, I aim to go much smaller to start so perhaps your book club, wine group, alumni association, or group of friends or relatives have something in mind. I’d be happy to design and lead the trip for you. Or you could take one of these two and let me know what dates work best for your group so I can design it from there.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

The Wine Country trip would be a great bonding experience for mothers and adult daughters. (Trying to keep the little ones out of the wine barrel.) If it’s just you, hell, that’s what I’m all about. Fill out that contact form and let me know what you’re interested in and maybe when. I can’t yet supply pricing as I need to reach out to my suppliers with specific dates, so I’ll get back to you. I’ll try to keep prices as low as possible as I really want these trips to be available to a variety of women of different ages, experience, and means.
Oh, yeh, and as far as the book, Drop Me Anywhere – one woman, two suitcases, and absolutely no plan, goes, I’ve been hunkering down and working on that also. 42,000 words so far. Writing a book is really hard. I may not be moving fast, but I am moving forward.

Communism and the Common People

After returning to Hanoi from my overnight in Halong Bay, I grab my suitcase and move to the Tu Linh Legend Hotel, which was recommended to me by a couple I met on the airport shuttle in Hoi An. I’ve found the personal recommendations much more reliable than the reviews on the various travel sites, as many of those are written by people paid by the hotel owner. Many of the negative reviews are by their competition. I tend to disregard the first few reviews as well as those which are supposedly written by people from countries where English is the native language, yet incorrect terms or grammar are used. A huge indicator for me is when they say “the staffs were great.” I also judge men by their grammar and could never date someone who doesn’t understand the difference between their, there and they’re.) The price at the Tu Linh Legend is $12 less per night and the staffs (ha!) at the Moon View 2, while nice, speak little English and have no idea what I’m talking about when I asked for directions to “the prison,” a major tourist site. I spend the evening in, relaxing from an early few days. (Heck, all of Vietnam has been early as they generally wake by about 5:30 am and are not quiet people.) In the morning, I head out to find that prison I spoke of. It’s called Hoa Lo and more famously known as the Hanoi Hilton, where many American pilots, including Arizona Senator John McCain were held after being shot down in, what I now know as, the American War (see previous article Happy Birthday in Halong Bay). Hanoi HiltonI pay my 15,000 Dong entrance fee (about US$0.70) and walk in. Built in 1896 by French colonists, Hoa Lo was a trade village which became a prison to revolutionary soldiers. Most of the bottom floor is dedicated to showing the harsh conditions the Vietnamese revolutionaries lived under. It shows torture devices, rooms filled with mannequins in shackles, and even a guillotine supposedly used to execute those condemned to death. It’s a sad and miserable place and I learn more about Vietnamese history. I head to more rooms where we get into the era of the 1960’s and 70’s. From 5 August, 1963 until 29 March, 1973, Hoa Lo housed captured U.S. pilots. Housed might be the wrong term as this is where they were confined and, often, tortured. The crazy thing here is that this small area dedicated to this part of the history of Hoa Lo is one big lie. John McCainI first see a display of items confiscated from the captured American pilots; there’s Vicks Cough Drops, a toothbrush, cigarettes and other daily items. Also on display are pieces of clothing, including one in a large case which purports to be the flight uniform of John McCain, along with his parachute. Moving through the room I view displays of nice, leather shoes, a leather carry-on bag and a few smaller items which are described as, “items given to American pilots by the Hanoi HiltonVietnamese government when they were returned to America.” Also shown are videos and photos of the captured pilots receiving souvenirs to take home to America (aw, parting gifts, how sweet). There are photos and videos of smiling, captured Americans playing pool and chess, with captions explaining how pilots enjoyed wonderful Christmases and excellent food. How amazing that the infamous Hanoi Hilton was really an all-inclusive resort. The only thing left out is the daily massages. I walk through while saying out loud, “Oh my god, oh my god!” While I don’t believe America should have been in Vietnam in the first place, soldiers were tortured and Hoa Lo was infamous for it’s terrible conditions and torture of its captives. This place is a real juxtaposition of my experiences in Germany where museums and historical sites are dedicated to telling the whole, horrible truth. I’ve never experienced a place filled with such propaganda. Hanoi HiltonI leave Hoa Lo disturbed that these lies are believed by the Vietnamese, as outside information can be somewhat limited due to the communist government. GardensI head next to the Văn Miếu, the Temple of Literature. Built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the temple grounds are divided into five courtyards, with decorative arches separating each, as well as gardens Temple of Literatureand statues in between. At the end is the altar-filled Pagoda where people have left offerings (mainly boxes of cheese wafers, which makes it look much like corporate sponsorship). There’s a university inside which was built in 1076 and has produced 1,307 graduates who have passed the set of eighty-two Royal Exams. The sign inside the pagoda explains Confucianism as this: “In brief, a theory on ethical behavior of a gentleman: educating the self, organizing the family, governing the state, and ruling all nations.” I think Confucius might have had something there. Temple of LiteratureAfter touring the Pagoda, I wait out front to meet Yen. You might remember that I met thirteen year-old Yen and her family in Da Nang while visiting Ba Na Hills. They adopted me and turned, what could have been a very bad day, into a fabulous one. They were on vacation then but, as they live in Hanoi, we’ve arranged to meet up. Vietnamese FamilyBefore long, Yen, her mother, and her four teenage cousins appear. We do introductions and hug and
they invite me to their house. We follow Son, Yen’s mom, to the bus stop where we take the twenty-minute bus-ride to their neighborhood, before walking another ten-minutes to their house. On the way, we stop at Yen’s aunt’s tailor shop as well as her other aunt’s clothing shop. We enter the house on the bottom floor, walk upstairs to the kitchen and up another flight to the patio and sitting room. There’s an altar with incense and photos of Yen’s grandmother, grandfathers and a brother who died at ten years-old. I’m introduced to their cat, Meow, their dog, Bee, some birds and some fish. Oh, and there are the chickens, but they have no names except, Lunch and Dinner. I’m also introduced to Yen’s father. We sit and drink herbal tea while getting to know each other better.
After a while, the teenagers suggest that they show me the marketplace. It’s about a five minute-walk and, like most of the marketplaces I’ve been in Vietnam, it has just about anything you could want, all decorated with designer labels (though, in my experience, many will fall apart within a month). This is really just me and some teenagers going to the mall; some things are universal. TeenagersI ask the girls if I can buy them ice cream and, as we walk down the street we’re joined by another cousin (a boy). We find a place which serves prepackaged ice-cream bars from a cooler and take a seat at one of the tiny plastic tables out front. We chat about many things – what they want to do when they get older, their plans for the summer, famous people – and this is where I see great differences from other teenagers I’ve met around the world. When one girl says she wants to be a rap star when she’s older, and she also loves California, mostly because of Hollywood stars, I as if she likes Eminem. She’s never heard of him. I name a few more singers; some, like Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson, they know. Others like U2 and Adele, they’ve never heard of. I play some of the music on my iPhone and we all rock to Taylor Swift and One Direction. I ask the name of some famous people here in Vietnam and the first answer given by all is Ho Chi Minh. Wow. I ask for more and they tell me Vo Nguyen Giap. When I ask who that is they tell me he’s a famous general. Oh, wow. This is not the answer I expected. Eiffel TowerNone of the teens have ever been out of Vietnam nor do they have a great desire to travel anywhere else, yet they do point out an electrical tower commenting that it looks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Eventually it’s time to say goodbye and they lead me to the bus stop where I board the #2 bus and ask the money-taker guy to let me know when we’re near the Temple of Literature. I step off and begin walking back to my hotel when I decide to stop for a bite of street-food and a beer. As I sit, three men invite me to join them and share their food. We eat, drink beer and chat while the sun sets. They’re impressed with the fact that I’m a woman traveling alone and that I’ll try all of the food they offer. They work for an insurance company for the military. One used to work in a business which meant traveling outside the country for conventions. He’s one of the few Vietnamese I’ve met who has traveled outside of Vietnam, as most don’t have the money and some can’t get visas. (One person in the south told me it’s because America won’t issue visitors visas to Vietnamese. I explained that it wasn’t true and American would issue a visa for a visit, but he wouldn’t believe me.) He tells me that, at some point, he was told he must work for this insurance company.
We talk about the difficulty of Vietnamese getting travel visas and, eventually, he says something in broken English like, “You’re not secret?”
I squint my eyes and ask him to repeat it. He does and I still don’t understand.
“Like CIA. You’re not secret police?” he says. “Because if you are, I’m in trouble.”
“Um, me? No, I’m just a travel writer.”
“Oh, good,” he says.
We continue to drink our beer, chat, and enjoy learning about each other’s cultures. I attempt to pay, and they refuse. Truly an enlightening day. Next up, The Good, the Bad, and the Thank-you’s

Up in the Air

Cable CarIf you follow Drop Me Anywhere on social media (links to all of DMA social media appear at the bottom of this article) you’ll know that I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately. These aren’t me interviewing someone else, but other people interviewing me about this unique project. Apparently many are finding the uniqueness and the writing fun and informative, and some are finding my story of taking a huge leap, as well as being a woman traveling solo, inspiring (either this or it’s simply like a train-wreck and, as much as they want to, they can’t look away). Regardless of the reasons for the interest, one of the questions which keeps coming up is, “Do you ever secretly wish for a certain location to win?” Well yes, of course I do. But, traveling with other people means compromise and, well, since I’m traveling with my Virtual Travel Buddies, that’s a decision I’ve left up to you. I trust you. (Unless you’re one of the ones following simply to watch the train wreck, in which case I hear your mother whispering under her breath, “That’s not how I raised you.”)

So here I am to announce the winner of this vote – Vietnam. And I am now admitting that it wouldn’t have been my first choice. Still, it’s yours and I trust you. I’ll fly to Vietnam within about two-weeks and, along the way, I’ll make my way to the Ba Na Cable car, outside of Danang.

Some cool info: Ba Na Cable Car holds four Guinness World Records. It’s the longest single-wire cable car system (5,771.61 meters; 18,936 feet), highest difference between departure and arrival terminals (1,368.93 meters; 4,491 feet ), longest non-stop cable (11,587 meters; 38,015 feet) and the heaviest cable roll (141.24 metric tons; 311,380 pounds). While I’ll be thinking about that “heaviest” world record while I’m up there, I’ve learned to trust in fate a bit. And the cable car was designed by the Austrian company Doppelmayer (not to be confused with Doppelganger as they look very much alike), which somehow makes me feel better (it seems that those Austrians should know how to build cable cars and ski-lifts and such.

So now, I’ll continue hiding out in the Lombock, Indonesian Island of Gili Air for just a little bit longer before, most likely, flying to Kuala Lumpur for a week or so as I have a round trip ticket and my Indonesian visa will expire soon.

While this wasn’t my first choice of destination, I’m sure it will be amazing. (Did I mention that I trust you?) And don’t worry, we’re going to explore a bit of Vietnam from the ground as well as from the air.

Be sure to follow Drop Me Anywhere on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Google+ for great updates and photos on the Gili Islands of Lombok, Indonesia. Thanks so much for voting and following Drop Me Anywhere (unless, of course, you’re a stalker then, quit following me).

Oh and if you’d like to read some of the recent articles written about Drop me anywhere, here are the links:

Chris Guillebeau

The Independent Traveler

Travel Pulse

The Detroit Jewish News (appeared in print version and on subscriber site)

When on Earth

The Yucatan Times

Examiner.com